Why Democrats Need To End the Filibuster

Warren and Buttigieg pressed Bernie Sanders on the filibuster last night. Here’s what you need to know.

In These Times Editors

(Illustration by Terry LaBan)
end • the • fil•i•bus•ter

verb

1. Stop puffed-up wind­bags from block­ing leg­is­la­tion that has major­i­ty support

The first bill to make lynch­ing a fed­er­al crime … passed the House in 1922. But it got killed in the Sen­ate — by a fil­i­buster.” —Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pres­i­den­tial Can­di­date Sen. Eliz­a­beth Warren

Of course I remem­ber how fil­i­busters work! … But explain it again, just for every­one else.

A fil­i­buster is any pro­ce­dur­al action to pre­vent the Sen­ate from ever vot­ing on a par­tic­u­lar piece of leg­is­la­tion. Until the 1970s, fil­i­bus­ter­ing often meant a sen­a­tor just kept talk­ing about any­thing they want­ed, with­out yield­ing the floor — so noth­ing else could hap­pen with a bill.

Nowa­days, sen­a­tors don’t have to keep yakking to fil­i­buster; instead, the minor­i­ty par­ty sim­ply gives notice they intend to fil­i­buster. Since 2006, when Repub­li­cans lost the major­i­ty in the Sen­ate, it’s become stan­dard pro­ce­dure for the minor­i­ty par­ty to rely on fil­i­busters to stonewall con­tro­ver­sial bills.

One way to break a fil­i­buster is by invok­ing clo­ture,” a three-fifths vote to lim­it a bill’s debate time. The effect is that pass­ing leg­is­la­tion through the Sen­ate effec­tive­ly requires 60 votes — instead of a sim­ple major­i­ty of 51. Look­ing ahead, that could be bad news for leg­is­la­tion like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, despite their enor­mous popularity.

Isn’t the fil­i­buster bad for both parties?

While many peo­ple asso­ciate fil­i­bus­ter­ing with Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton-esque stands against abuse of pow­er, and pro­gres­sives relied on the fil­i­buster to pre­vent the pri­va­ti­za­tion of Social Secu­ri­ty in 2005, the fil­i­buster has often been used to block civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion — from fed­er­al anti-lynch­ing laws in the 1920s to the Civ­il Rights Act of 1957 (the longest spo­ken fil­i­buster by Sen. J. Strom Thur­mond) to the DREAM Act in 2010.

Isn’t this too wonky for vot­ers to actu­al­ly care about?

Maybe by itself, but push­ing through sweep­ing bills like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal will require Dems to use every advan­tage they can get. Sev­er­al 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates—includ­ing Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Pete Buttigieg — sup­port or are open” to end­ing the fil­i­buster. Bernie Sanders does not sup­port end­ing the fil­i­buster, but says he would use the spe­cial case of bud­get rec­on­cil­i­a­tion bills (which can be pro­tect­ed against fil­i­busters) to push through legislation.

Regard­less, if they hope to make real change in 2020 and beyond, Dems will need to con­trol the Sen­ate and have the guts to maneu­ver in ways that will almost cer­tain­ly make the fil­i­buster mas­ters in the GOP cry foul.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of end­ing the fil­i­buster, see, The Union Pres­i­dent Who’s Help­ing Put Fil­i­buster Reform in Motion” and Dethrone Fil­i­buster King’ Mitch McConnell.”

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